SOL Summit: Trump Sparks Unity, Activism among NYC Latinos

Council members Ydanis Rodríguez and Carlos Menchaca, with Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa. (Photo by Vicente Villafañe courtesy of Lalaboy PR via El Diario)

Inevitably, Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant policies took front and center at the first Summit on Latin@s NYC (SOL): Shaping the Future of New York City, which took place in New York on Thursday.

Held at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College in Harlem, the summit – the first in what is meant to be a yearly event – aimed to define a course of action for the Latino community in New York City for the coming decades. Council member Ydanis Rodríguez, one of the coordinators of these meetings, explained that the objective is to work with the community to help it recognize its diversity and firmly establish its next generations into the country’s middle class.

Still, neither Rodríguez nor Council member Carlos Menchaca, nor the academics, activists and community organizations who participated were able to dodge the topic of Donald Trump’s presidency, which they considered an “existential threat.” Nevertheless, the common message was one of unity in diversity, not just for the Latino community but for every minority. “Trump is pushing us into a corner. However, we are not only going to survive, they are pushing us to become increasingly stronger.”

Menchaca agreed with this vision, adding that the threat that Trump’s policies represent for the most vulnerable is allowing for more opportunities to function as a community and to encourage other at-risk groups who are being intimidated by Washington – such as people belonging to the LGBT and Muslim communities – to join forces.

“In Sunset Park,” the district Menchaca represents and which has a large Mexican population, “there are people meeting up in their homes to let others know what their rights are, and that is changing the fabric of the neighborhood,” he explained.

During the meeting, which attracted enough people to pack the Harlem educational institution’s auditorium, someone asked the public if they had participated in any of the recent civic marches and protests. Many hands rose resolutely.

Assemblywoman Carmen De La Rosa pointed out that the year 2020 is not far away and that it is important for Latinos to be counted and for them to open their doors to census workers and make themselves heard.

This was also addressed by Rep. Adriano Espalliat, who encouraged Latinos to take part in the civic democratic process and to make use of the leverage their demographics afford them. “Power is not something you beg for. In order to be powerful, we must be educated, healthy and financially solid so we can prosper.”

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito during her presentation at the first SOL NYC summit. (Photo by Vicente Villafañe courtesy of Lalaboy PR via El Diario)

NYC as “sanctuary”

The summit was organized as a number of panels aimed at dissecting the current moment and the challenges faced by the community regarding education, economic opportunity, representation, health, criminal justice and, certainly, immigration. About the latter issue, panelists and audience unanimously agreed that if New York City is a “sanctuary city,” its funding must reflect that status.

Jennifer Williams, an immigration lawyer with The Legal Aid Society, said that, now that the city’s budget is being discussed, it is critical to prevent funding cuts to the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, which provides legal representation to people who have been detained and are at risk of deportation. The call echoes the one made by Make the Road New York and other organizations, who have asked the government to assign $12 million so that the program, launched in 2013, is able to continue providing professional assistance.

Williams said that it is crucial for the program to continue operating, adding that cases involving people with a criminal background or previous offenses must not be abandoned, as City Hall is proposing. “Not having access to representation because a crime was committed, particularly when that crime was committed in the past and the person has paid for it, should not be considered due process.”

Williams, one of the nine lawyers in her organization working on cases at the Varick Street immigration court, said that it was shocking to see people working in civilian positions handcuffed and wearing orange jumpsuits. “We must resist, and we must continue pushing this budget. It is terrible to think that this groundbreaking, universal program could be thwarted.”

The immigration panel, which included DREAM Action Coalition Co-Director César Vargas, called for extending the legal representation currently provided to undocumented people and migrant children not only to immigrants in New York but also to asylum seekers who wind up in the state and to those being transferred to New Jersey jails. “This branch of law is extremely complicated, and I can only imagine the anxiety people who have no representation must feel in a court of law.”

Williams lamented that the complexity of the law prevents some people from realizing that they can request asylum and even green cards.

Still, Vargas said that, although the worst rhetoric is coming from the Republican side, “both parties have collaborated in building a deportation machine,” adding: “Mayor Bill de Blasio says that we are a sanctuary city, but now we will only be one for a select group of people,” referring to the city’s plan to offer legal assistance only to people with a completely clean record. “That doesn’t work. We cannot have the party rhetoric but lack the financing.” Vargas said passionately that a “good immigrant/bad immigrant” policy and “getting into Washington’s game” are unacceptable. 

According to Vargas, Latinos should not allow any political group to take them for granted (…) “I don’t only want [the community] to call Trump out but also to introduce legislation and send an effective message on where they stand. We know who talks pretty and who talks horribly, but what we need is action.”

Undocumented lawyer César Vargas (right) participated in the immigration panel. (Photo by Vicente Villafañe courtesy of Lalaboy PR via El Diario)

Some disagreement

Even though the – mostly Latino – audience actively participated in the panels and shared similar views, one young woman complained that immigrants and women arriving in the country to give birth to U.S.-born children are given more attention than veterans, also regretting that her contribution as a taxpayer is not being directed to those veterans. “We need to defend our own first,” she insisted.

Vargas agreed that the country needs to improve its treatment of the people who have fought in conflicts, among them Latino veterans who, due to mental illness or other reasons, end up deported despite having defended the country that is now kicking them out. He also pointed out that Latinos pay much more in taxes than large U.S. corporations. The young woman said that she ignored this fact, for which she apologized.

After their presentation, both Williams and Vargas explained that the most important thing is to tell stories, share experiences and make everyone, regardless of political affiliation, recognize the struggle of a large part of the immigrant community. “We need to tell their stories,” said Williams.

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